Monday, September 7, 2009

I was a block of wood So? It was the truth

Sep 6, 2009

In 1988, then PM Lee Kuan Yew said that his first choice as successor was Tony Tan not Goh Chok Tong. Later, he described Goh as 'wooden' and that he might have to see a psychiatrist about it. Singaporeans were stunned. So were Goh and his associates. Why did Lee make such a blunt public assessment? How did Goh feel about it?

Lee Kuan Yew might have accepted the second-generation leaders' choice of Goh Chok Tong as their leader in 1984 but he unsettled both them and the public four years later, at the National Day rally in August, when he made public his 1980 assessment of the five key men.

His blunt statement on how he thought Goh tried to please too many people when he should not and that his first choice as successor was Tony Tan, although he had known by 1984 that the latter was not interested in the job, shook the people.

Goh, who was 'puzzled and stunned' by the speech, remembered the awkwardness at the reception after the event. 'How would the people come and greet me? It was very awkward. They looked at me...they didn't know whether to smile or to sympathise with me,' he said.

His good friend Ahmad Mattar was furious, he said. He told Ahmad in jest: 'If the prime minister does this to me again next year, I'll walk out.'

'I'll walk out with you,' Ahmad said to him.

Goh's wife, equally puzzled, asked: 'Why did he say that?'

Lee caused yet another stir among the people a few days later - at a session with students from the National University of Singapore and the Nanyang Technological Institute, now Nanyang Technological University - when he described Goh as 'wooden' and said that he might have to see a psychiatrist about it.

In pointing out how Goh could not convey through television and mass meetings what he could in individual face-to-face or small group discussions, he said: 'I have suggested to him (to seek) perhaps a bit of psychological adjustment, maybe (see) a psychiatrist...something holds him back. He is...before a mass audience...he gets wooden - which he is not. When you speak to him one-to-one, he has strong feelings. Get him on television, it's difficult (to see that). He has improved, I will say, about 20 per cent. He needs to improve by more than 100 per cent.'

Someone differently constituted from Goh could have been thrown on the mat by so harsh a public judgement and not get up after the count of 10 but not Goh. Looking back, he said simply: 'It did not hurt...I knew Mr Lee well. He's not a man to slam you for nothing. He was never personal. So I did not feel he wanted to insult me...He had his purpose in saying what he said. I think he was disappointed with me for my inability to mobilise the ground. So he wanted to get me to do something about it.'

He added: 'I knew myself. I was a block of wood. So? It was the truth. But I was prepared to take on the job. If I could not do the job, then so be it. That was my strength. I was not chasing after the job. If I were, if my ambition was to be prime minister, then I'd be furious that my chances had diminished.'

This did not prevent him from speculating that Lee could still have wanted Tan to be the successor although Tan and his peers had plumped for him. Lee could have made his less than favourable public assessment of Goh to see if the PAP cadres and MPs would reject him as a result.

If they did, then Tan, however reluctant he was, would have to take his place. Tan was well liked by the people, Goh said, but he believed he was more popular among the cadres than Tan since he had worked closely with them for many years.

As it turned out, it was Tony Tan and Lee Hsien Loong who led the cadres and the people to rally round Goh. At a PAP rally at the Singapore Conference Hall on Aug 21, Lee Hsien Loong made it clear that all the cabinet ministers and all the members of the party's central executive committee (CEC), except Lee Kuan Yew, worked for Goh Chok Tong.

'We acknowledged him as our leader and in fact, we - that means the younger ministers - discussed it among ourselves and have decided that he'll be the next prime minister,' he said to loud applause from the party cadres.

'He brought many of us into politics, including me. If comrade Goh had not invited me to stand, I would not be in politics because I cannot volunteer,' he added.

At a community event in Sembawang on the same day, Tony Tan told reporters that the second-generation leaders had met after the 1984 general election and decided unanimously that Goh should lead them and take over from Lee eventually. 'I see no reason at all why that decision should be changed, and the task for all of us is to support Goh Chok Tong in his very difficult job,' he stressed.

Goh himself did not remain silent. At a National Day dinner at his Marine Parade ward a week after Lee's rally speech, he said to his constituents: 'I told the prime minister many times...I will not change my style. It is part of my temperament and personality, and I cannot change my personality or my temperament.

'But habits, if they are not so good habits and if they can be improved upon, certainly, I should change those habits. But style is part of my temperament. It cannot be changed.'

On Lee's point about his desire to please people, he said: 'I would not use the word 'please' to describe my attitude. I would use the word 'accommodate'. In other words, I listen, I talk, I try to persuade and try to bring as many people on board as possible...

'I regard this style of mine as a strength, not a weakness. Karate chops have to be executed when necessary. But I like to use them only sparingly.'

At the National Day rally speech, Lee had said that getting people to perform was not a matter of smiling and kissing babies and patting people on the back all the time. 'There are times when a very good, firm karate chop is necessary. And deliver it cleanly. Don't have two chops where one would do.'

Ong Keng Yong - who was Goh's press secretary from 1998 to 2002 when he left for Jakarta to head the Asean Secretariat, the central administrative organ for the group of Southeast Asian countries - observed that Goh would not reject any suggestion or idea outright, whether in the Cabinet, in community work or interacting with his staff.

'He would listen to the pros and cons, work out a balance and match it with his own opinion. In this disarming way, he would bring people around to a particular idea,' Ong said.

'He might be patient but no issue was left to stew for too long. If something had to be left on the burner for a slow boil, it would have been a deliberate decision...His style was (that) he would get into the deep end of the swimming pool with you and knock around a particular idea. Once you got out of the pool, you actually wanted to deliver results as quickly as possible. Because he had indulged you, he had listened to you, given you some ideas, polished some rough edges and then asked for action to be taken. He didn't need to give you a deadline. You knew you had failed him if he had to remind you of the task.'

Integrity and dedication

When Lee spoke to the students, he did elaborate on Goh's qualities.

He had no doubts about the latter's integrity and dedication, he said. Goh had shown that he could not be bought when he was head of the Neptune Orient Lines. He had to do business with very wealthy people, like shipping magnate Y.K. Pao, but he was not seduced by their way of life.

Since 1980, Goh had found 30 of the 61 candidates that PAP fielded in 1981 and 1984, and would field in the 1988 election. Most importantly, he was not afraid to pick able men, men who could be his contenders. Lee cited, in particular, his son Lee Hsien Loong and the Cambridge-trained biochemist Yeo Ning Hong.

Goh had first-class interpersonal skills but he was no softie. He was not afraid to make tough decisions and push them through in parliament after he had worked the ground, selling them to the people. In the case of the CPF cut and wage restraint during the 1985 recession, for instance, he and his peers spent three months talking to all the unions.

'They pulled it off. The workers accepted not only a 15 percentage point cut in the employers' contribution but also two years of wage restraint, which is a major triumph, not attempted anywhere else in the world,' Lee told the students.

But reading the newspaper reports on the event the following day, most people were drawn only to the sensational bit - that Goh was wooden and needed to see a psychiatrist.

For the many Singaporeans who wondered what Lee was up to in assessing his successor Goh in so public and blunt a fashion, he cleared the air a month later, at the PAP's lunchtime rally at Fullerton Square for the 1988 general election. He told the crowd that his recent candid assessment of Goh was 'not a bad gambit'.

Since he 'put up that balloon', Goh had become more natural on television and in front of mass audiences, he said. It was his duty to tell Singaporeans his honest assessment of Goh. At the same time, he wanted to decide, from the way Goh reacted, whether he could be his own man.

'I said: 'Speak up! Be yourself. If you are angry, say so!' The result? He's no longer inhibited. He can talk about his inability to react naturally with crowds and in the process, he has come through.'

He urged the people to give Goh and his team 'a ringing endorsement'.

In his interviews for this book, Lee elaborated on the reasons he made public his assessment of Goh. He said: 'I knew it would cause some discomfort. But this was a very critical was choosing the right man for the job. I laid down my cards. They (the second-generation leaders) chose Goh Chok Tong. Well, he had got to make the effort.

'And because I said all those things, he felt uncomfortable. But I said to him: 'Look, you may not be a natural speaker but you've got to start learning, because you can't be a leader when you can't communicate.'

'I told him when I was doing my campaigning in 1960 and 1961, every lunchtime I was eating and learning Hokkien from scratch. And by the end of the campaign, I was able to make some speeches in Hokkien. So he was willing to do it. He knew he had to make the effort. And he made the effort. As the years progressed, he improved.'

The majority of the ethnic Chinese population in Singapore are descendants of immigrants who had come from the southern Chinese province of Fujian, where Hokkien is the principal dialect. In the 1960s, most of the people were uneducated, hence Lee's need to master Hokkien.

After Goh Keng Swee introduced national service in 1967, he found he had to form separate Hokkien-speaking platoons because many of the 18-year-olds could not understand the English and Malay instructions of their officers. It would take another two decades before the need for such platoons was made redundant, thanks to universal education.

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